No matter what the diehard “Star Wars” fans think, “The Last Jedi” has all the hallmarks of a traditional Best Picture contender in the Oscar race: A mid-December release date, an 150-minute running time, a box office gross that verges on disgusting, and — last but not least — a scene in which Mark Hamill suckles green milk from the tit of a giant alien seahorse. Most importantly, it’s the best film in Hollywood’s most storied franchise. So why does it have zero chances of getting a nomination?
As this critic wrote in a recent article: “‘The Last Jedi’ is an immensely satisfying experience that doubles as an urgent call to action for mega-franchise filmmaking… it’s as much of a new hope for the eroding blockbuster culture of 2017 as ‘A New Hope’ was for the emerging blockbuster culture of 1977.” And yet, despite the fact that “A New Hope” earned a Best Picture nomination at a time when there were only five slots available in a given year, “The Last Jedi” has almost never even factored into the conversation.
The film is currently in 51st place on Gold Derby’s depth chart, ranking it below “Suburbicon,” several movies that barely played in theaters, and that one where Idris Elba and Kate Winslet have sex with a mountain. The “Star Wars” sequel’s odds are estimated to be 100/1, which are the exact same odds the site gives “The Snowman.” Diss.
This for a film that shook the zeitgeist and delighted critics, Rian Johnson’s epic earning a Metacritic score (85) that put it just below major awards heavyweights like “Call Me by Your Name” (93) and “The Shape of Water” (86), ties it with Dee Rees’ sterling “Mudbound,” and puts it well above other legit contenders like “Darkest Hour” (75) and “I, Tonya” (76).
Of course, there’s a very simple answer as to why “The Last Jedi” is languishing in the fringes of the Oscar race, left with nothing but a billion dollars to console it. And no, it’s not because of the overheated “backlash” — while it’s obviously true that a certain percentage of sane “Star Wars” fans have yet to accept Rian Johnson’s installment as the summit of the saga (give them time), let’s stop pretending that a pathetic gaggle of racist trolls are an accurate bellwether for one of the most rewarding mega-movies in recent memory. The fact of the matter is that nobody is talking about “The Last Jedi” as a possible Best Picture contender because nobody is talking about “The Last Jedi” as a possible Best Picture contender.
It’s not “an Oscar movie.” Nobody really knows what that means anymore — the film industry is evolving faster than our ability to catalog its changes — but it definitely means something. At this point, it’s safe to assume that even the most wide-eyed of Oscar enthusiasts has disabused themselves from the delusion that the Academy Awards are an absolute meritocracy; it’s hardly controversial to observe that some films are positioned for your consideration, and some are not. Even now, at a time when mid-budget titles regularly vie for the top prize and surprising titles are increasingly able to make their way into the mix — and even onto the stage — by sheer force of will (“Moonlight” last year, “Get Out” and maybe also “Wonder Woman” this year), there’s still plenty of truth to the idea that Hollywood’s greatest honor is a confluence of self-fulfilling prophecies.
Like Tonya Harding gliding backwards and bracing herself for a triple axle, Oscar hopefuls skate into the season with a very specific agenda; not a routine so much as a narrative. When Neon acquired “I, Tonya” at TIFF and set the slippery biopic for a year-end debut, they were knowingly writing the first chapter of the film’s story, appealing to the judges better than its blue-collar subject ever did and positioning it as a release that naturally belonged in competition, regardless of its merits.
Figure skating is actually a helpful analogue for the Oscar process in more ways than one: Pedigree is more important than raw power, a single stumble can ruin a shot at the gold, and backflips are strictly forbidden. You can be the best skater in the world, but they’re really scoring you based on your sequins. While the accepted wisdom of what constitutes an “Oscar movie” is lagging far behind the reality of what keeps winning, the fact of the matter is that you become an awards contender by telling people that you’re an awards contender. They’ll probably believe you.
When it comes to “The Last Jedi,” Disney basically told us the opposite. Not screened until after the voting deadlines for major precursors like the New York Film Critics Circle and the Golden Globes, Star Wars hasn’t exactly gone out of its way to court that kind of attention. The monolithic distributor has created a For Your Consideration page for the film (a formality they extend to all of their major releases), but there’s a galaxy of difference between a perfunctory display and an actual campaign. And considering that “The Force Awakens” only earned the expected array of below-the-line nods — and that “Toy Story 3” is the only direct sequel to earn a franchise its first Best Picture nomination — Disney can hardly be faulted for not spending the energy or making an awards push into something of a priority.
A trophy is always nice, but Star Wars doesn’t exactly need one. After all, we’re talking about a movie that probably made more money on stuffed porgs than “Lady Bird” will gross in ticket sales, so it’s not as if Disney is relying on that Oscar boost in order to goose its box office haul. And now that the WGA and PGA shortlists have been announced, it’s no longer feasible that a groundswell of public support might unexpectedly force “The Last Jedi” above the likes of “The Shape of Water” and “Molly’s Game” and into the big dance.
Nobody needs to cry over the fate or fortune of the year’s biggest film — particularly when so many smaller, similarly worthy titles are relying on awards buzz just to break even — but it’s nevertheless unfortunate that “The Last Jedi” has been limited by its own enormity. We’re currently suffering through a time when the vast majority of blockbusters aren’t worthy of consideration, when movies of that size are repugnantly okay with erring closer to product than art, when almost anything budgeted at more than $100 million is more deserving of a Consumer’s Choice Award than an Oscar.
And yet, there’s nothing to be gained (and a lot to be lost) by blindly accepting the idea that mega-franchise movies are of a fundamentally different species than the kinds of movies that are honored inside the Kodak Theater. Just because the average Best Picture winner is now much smaller than it used to be doesn’t mean that we should effectively take the biggest ones off the playing field. It goes without saying that the major studios are always going to be more concerned with their shareholders than with their critics, but there’s a real danger in imposing such a low ceiling on a corporation that’s so focused on the bottom line; in further conditioning an empire like Disney to think that a Star Wars movie or a Marvel movie can’t also be a bold creative achievement worth celebrating.
“The Last Jedi” is an incredibly encouraging sign that even the most sacred of blockbusters can defy expectations and grow beyond the things that made its franchise great to begin with; from inside a sandbox that was petrified by its own past, Rian Johnson managed to create a sweeping, inclusive, forward-thinking mega-budget epic that feels as daring and visionary in its own way as any of the movies that will actually be vying for Best Picture.
It’s hard to blame Disney for not positioning “The Last Jedi” as a possible contender (even though “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” prequel “Wonder Woman” has been bandied about as a potential nominee since June, and looks increasingly poised to earn a spot in the wake of its recognition from the PGA). It’s just as it’s hard to blame the media for not saving it a spot. On the other hand, this is a film that triumphed by illustrating how real grace often comes from the most unexpected places, and then had the courage to fully embody its own convictions. If that doesn’t deserve a real shot at Hollywood’s highest honor, nothing does.